How We Rationalize The Behavior Of Others

Imagine going to work one day feeling extremely happy because you got some good news. Naturally, you want to spread the good cheer to your office mates, so you make eye contact with an office mate that you rarely talk to and smile to him.

You wave your hand a little to say “hi”to the person. In return, your office mate literally slams down his hands and storms out of the office, leaving papers and pens scattered in his cubicle. Your office mate is visibly upset by something.

Was it you who did that? What could have triggered such behavior from your office mate? As you think of the reasons why a person would behave in such a manner, you are actually attributing potential causes of the other person’s reaction and behavior.

Attribution is the foundation of social cognition or how folks like you and me think about other folks. At the outset, attribution itself is more about rationalization than epistemology. Attribution is more concerned with linking together what you already know than generating new knowledge about a particular even.

Humans, being critical and rational beings, engage in attribution due to two basic reasons:

  1. People need to come up with a perspective of their society and its members that would make complete sense to them.
  2. Attribution demystifies events and interactions with other people which in turn reduce the strangeness of the world at large. Rationalization, coupled with better understanding, can give a person more control over his own life and the actual reality that he is in.

People feel the need to attribute in everyday life because the process of attribution produces not only potential reasons why an event happened the way it did but because this process also actively gives meaning to the world that we live in. Meaning itself can only be possible if a person thinks about something.

Meaning does not exist in a vacuum, to be picked up by people as they please. You have to think in order to make sense of something that is in front of you. People create meaning; meaning does not “find” a person. If a person says that the meaning of life revealed itself to him in a dream it is more likely that he has been obsessing about this topic for quite some time and his brain finally gave him an answer.

Kinds of Attribution

There are two general categories of human attribution: internal attribution and external attribution. When people try to make sense of an event, they can either attribute the event to internal traits and characteristics or they can attribute it to external forces and circumstances. Here‟s an example: imagine that you were walking in a quiet street when all of a sudden, a car screeches out of control and „parks‟ itself on the sidewalk. All its lights are flashing but it didn’t hit the small store that was standing a few inches from its bumpers. You observe how the driver nonchalantly backs up his car and drives away after the frightening display. You try to figure out what just happened and you come up with these causes:

Internal attributions:

“Maybe the driver is just plain crazy!”
“The driver has to be drunk to do that kind of stunt.” “The guy has to be in a really bad mood.”
“Maybe he the guy is just learning how to drive.” “That guy doesn’t know how to park properly!”

External attributions:

“Maybe he got spooked by a big truck somewhere.”
“The guy’s brakes got jammed, probably.”
“The car is old, maybe that‟s why he can’t control it well.” “Maybe this just wasn’t a good day for him.”

Internal and external attributions can also be further sub-categorized as being stable or fluctuating. For example, an attribution that someone has poor driving skills means you are invoking stability or natural ability while an attribution that the guy has probably had one too many drinks means you are invoking temporary or fluctuating conditions. Both types of inference or attribution are affected by varying degrees of controllability (i.e. drinking alcoholic beverages versus not drinking any alcohol before driving).

The How and Why of Attribution

There are two main theories regarding the process of attribution in varying social contexts: the correspondent inference theory and the co- variation model. Both these theories are helpful in figuring out how people are able to create their own explanations of events and situations that they meet every day.

Correspondent Inference Theory

The first theory of attribution stipulates that people make inferences about other people that are indicative of internal traits and characteristics, instead of external circumstances. Why do people choose to think of internal characteristics instead of external circumstances?

The answer lies in people’s general preferences for stability. For example, if you meet a waiter who was not very helpful when you wanted to order something special for yourself and your partner, it is likely that your first attribution to such a behavior is that the waiter was simply incompetent.

Since the waiter has already been tagged incompetent, the tag of incompetence will remain in the future. So in essence, you have been able to exert some degree of control over the situation since you will be avoiding the waiter in the future to avoid inconvenience.

People don’t usually attribute things based on external circumstances. For example, if you did not get the kind of service that you wanted from a restaurant, you won’t think that maybe the waiter is just having a bad day or maybe the management was evil because they did not train the waiter adequately.

The instant tendency is people attribute internal characteristics to behavior, actions, speech, etc.

Since we are always on the lookout for even more stability in our lives, such inferences gives us the kind of knowledge and control that we want because internal characteristics such as “incompetence” or “rudeness” are essentially unchanging attributes. We attempt to associate behavior and people‟s personalities based on three groups of facts:

– Social desirability
– Choice
– Non-common effects

Let’s discuss these three fact groups. Social desirability refers to the desirability of a person’s behavior compared to what is considered acceptable/normal/agreeable or desirable in society in specific contexts.

People believe that when people show undesirable behavior, this undesirable behavior is linked to an internal trait or internal characteristic. People use this fact group to create attributions because people usually want to stay within the bounds of acceptable behavior at all times.

When a person stays within the bounds of what is considered normal or acceptable, he will not be excluded in any way. Inversely, a person who chooses to act beyond the bounds of what is considered acceptable may be excluded or ridiculed for what he has done.

This ridicule itself has a function – in a way, it forces a person to cease from performing the same unacceptable behavior and return to what is considered normal. Now, let me ask you: do socially desirable behaviors tell us what type of person we are actually dealing with?

The answer is: not necessarily. You see, people perform “acceptable behavior” on a regular basis so they can avoid exclusion. In a way, this is one form of self-preservation.

If Person A’s car was slightly scratched by another motorist, he will accept the apology and attempt to fix the situation with the least amount of hullabaloo because this is the acceptable mode of behavior in such a situation.

However, this behavior does hide the fact that Person A may have felt like being aggressive and violent when his car was damaged. What about people who show undesirable behavior?

It’s the direct opposite when you are dealing with people who openly show to the public unacceptable behavior. Since these folks are not even thinking of socially acceptable behavior anymore, their behavior may be indicative of their actual internal traits and personalities.

The second fact group involves free choice. People can make inferences about another person’s behavior by evaluating whether or not the other person’s action was freely and consciously chosen or not. If a person freely chose to do something then by virtue of his conscious choice he is actually revealing a part of himself to the public eye. Why would a person freely choose to do something? The answer is simple: the decision resonates with his personality and beliefs.

The third fact group deals with unique consequences. When an action or behavior results in a unique consequence, a person can classify the same as having a non-common effect.

Events that have unique consequences or non-common effects are most likely caused by internal traits (i.e. a person who screams at people at the slightest provocation will be despised by people; that person will also be classified as being anti-social and aggressive and ultimately, he should be avoided by others).

The Co-variation Model

The obvious limitation of the first theory is that you would only be able to analyze singular events or behaviors. You won’t be able to take into account behavior patterns and multiple behaviors. The co-variation model of attribution handles the limitations of the first theory. The co-variation model, unlike the first theory, takes into account internal traits/characteristics as well as external circumstances. The core principle of the co-variation model is simple: for something to cause or trigger a particular behavior, it must be present when a person is exhibiting the behavior. On the flip side, the behavior must not exhibit itself when the potential cause is absent.

Three types of information are vital to the co-variation model:

– Consensus
– Consistency
– Distinctiveness

All three clusters of information are used by a person to create an internal attribution or external attribution. Consensus refers to similar behavior of people around the target subject. Are other people exhibiting the same behavior as the subject? Consistency on the other hand answers the question: does the person behave in the same way in other occasions? Distinctiveness (the third cluster) refers to the frequency of a particular behavior in other contexts and situations (i.e. will a rude person stay rude if he was doing volunteer work?)

The following table explores how people make attributions based on the three clusters:



Type of Attribution


High consensus


Everyone is driving strangely.


Low consensus


Only Person A is driving strangely.



High consistency


Person A drives


strangely all the time.

Low consistency


Person A drove strangely today.



High distinctiveness


Person A drove strangely on Monday.


Low distinctiveness


Person A has always driven strangely around the city.


Not every situation will be analyzed with these three distinct clusters of information. Sometimes, people just stick to one or two clusters and attribute causes to behavior without bothering with the third cluster.

The presence (or absence) of any of these clusters will dictate whether a situational (external) or dis-positional (internal) attribution will result from a person‟s analysis of a situation.

If a person sees that everyone in the environment is doing the exact same thing (i.e. students in a whole auditorium is wearing a red cap) then the attribution will most likely be situational.

However, if only the speaker is wearing a red cap, then the attribution will most likely be dis-positional (i.e. the speaker likes wearing red caps). It should be noted also that not everyone performs analysis based on the co-variation model. In fact, when you look at the co-variation model, it actually resembles a conscious train of thought that requires utmost attention. This doesn’t mean that the model is wrong; it just means that at any given time, a person can be using other methods of deduction to understand the world at large. The two theories we have just discussed are by no means strict rules that people follow.

According to researchers, people often react to situations based on gut feel or what people like to call their instincts. People won’t spend a lot of time thinking whether or not a person should be trusted. If a person is threatened by another person, he will instinctively avoid that person because he will be acting instinctively.

In a way, this is how people engage in self-preservation. And this is also how people show that they will always choose the path of least resistance when interacting with people, especially people who are showing behaviors that are not socially acceptable. In short: people like shortcuts when it comes to the process of making attribution and analyzing things.